CCAR Student Staff Member Karen Soliz’s Experience at the Debating for Democracy Conference

I was invited to participate in the Debating for Democracy (D4D) a Project Pericles Initiative the past weekend at the New School Campus in NYC. The project seeks to empower students by training them in areas of civic engagement, advocacy, and leadership. During the first discussion panel, I had the opportunity to meet DeNora Getachew who is the NY Deputy Director of Generation Citizen. Her non-profit works towards increasing civic engagement through peer-to-peer mentorship in public school in NYC. She talked about the barriers to achieve active democratic participation in our current political environment. Moreover, the importance of bringing action and civic engagement courses to low-income families in NYC. I approach her seeking advice to increase civic engagement in the Pace University campus and how to create effective voter registration campaigns. DeNora explained that it’s essential to develop a campaign that goes along with the interests of the students on our campus. For instance, find common interests and create events that will catch their attention or create events where students can talk and learn about current social issues and help them get involved in advocacy campaigns. She also explained that when students don’t show enthusiasm in participating it’s critical that we serve as mentors and help them explore the many rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

In the first workshop of the conference, we were giving the opportunity to strengthen our storytelling skills. In advocacy projects, it’s essential to tell stories of how you have witnessed the problem because it demonstrates the importance of the change we are seeking. Telling a story either personal or a story that you read in a newspaper can be critical when connecting with people that help you move along the issue. Because talking about the statistics and laws or passed legislation can be very important but sometimes does not engage people, but telling a personal story can be critical if we want to make the strongest advocacy statements. However, this does not mean that if the issue that you are advocating for does not impact you personally, you can still work in addressing this issue and you can still help sharing the stories of the people that are being affected but can not share their stories. When creating a story that will help in the advocacy work, we need to take into account that our story needs to be precise and be linked to the issue and the solution.

During the first panel discussion, we were also encouraged to understand that advocating for different issues of our interests, involves a long process where we will have to keep persuading elected officials and seeking cooperations with organizations/students/nonprofits that work along with the same issue. During the same discussion, one of the panelist Chuck Bell who is the program’s director for a Consumer Report Magazine that is currently working on increasing credit scores for low-income families, addressing student loans and bills to prevent robocalls. He also talked about the importance of developing skills when writing legislation such as analytical and persuasive writing. For instance, he said that it is critical to develop problem-solving skills and to get more knowledgeable in the issues that we are trying to advocate for, and be able to answer questions that mind arose when presenting our policy or letter to elected officials.

In effect, I was able to witness this statement during the legislative hearing on the second day of the conference. Different students were competing to have their letters approved by the judges. The considerations when proposing legislation or policy that the judges put in the table involved straightforward questions, but it also considered the issue that is being addressed from a broad point of view. For instance, questions such as:

  • How to address the other problems that come along with a proposal?
  • Is your representative aware of the issue that you are advocating?
  • How hard it’s going to be to convince elected officials in this polarized current political environment?
  • To consider the economic cost and the benefit of the proposal.
  • Acknowledge the other party position.
  • Also, If there’s another way that they can address the issue?

In addition, the Pericles Project included workshops to enhance our leadership skills. The interactive workshop You Have A Voice. It’s Time to Hear It. Led by Christopher Kush, the CEO of Soapbox Consulting and author of The One-Hour Activists, was one of the most interactive and practical workshops where I was able to analyze my policy proposal critically.

In this workshop, students that attended the conference had the opportunity to simulate a Legislative Meeting. During the simulation, we presented our policy to a staff member that took the role of a Senator, and we had to provide with key elements from our proposals without reading the document at full. During the first round, we presented to a “Good Senator” meaning; the Senator agreed with us in our proposal without presenting so many challenging questions because he was on our side of the issue. For the second round “Not so good Senator” meaning, the Senator will be against our proposal. Indeed, the second round was challenging because it involved questions that sometimes we don’t want to look for, for instance, Why our policy proposal wouldn’t’ work?, Why is the opposing party so reluctant to past this policy? Moreover, What would be the consequences of passing the proposed policy? Although, it was very unpleasant to address a person that does not agree with you and that does not see a problem the workshop helped give us an insight of what we might encounter when moving forward with our letters or policies proposals.

After leaving the conference, I felt empowered to be part of the change and don’t be afraid of the different obstacles that we will find on the way. I used to think I was small and that my voice wouldn’t be heard unless I’m a professional with deep knowledge in the field of immigration, however,  being part of the conference help me realized that advocating for an issue is not only about having the knowledge. It’s also about getting to know the people that are being affected and having the desire to help and to create change in our society.